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Artists under fire for performing at controversial Saudi Arabia concert

Several artists have been announced to perform at a concert in Jeddah on Thursday, despite concerns over human rights in the kingdom
Performers 50 Cent, Future and Janet Jackson are all slated to participate in a controversial concert in Jeddah (MEE)

Several artists have come under fire for their planned performances at the Jeddah World Fest on Thursday.

The music festival is sponsored and authorised by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, and has drawn criticism from activists and rights groups.

The event will be taking place at the King Abdullah Sports Stadium.

The latest artists announced to be performing at the festival are Janet Jackson and rappers 50 Cent and Future.

Over the past months, the kingdom has allowed performances by Mariah Carey, the Black Eyed Peas, Sean Paul, Enrique Iglesias and David Guetta, amongst others.

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The performances illustrate a significant change in the kingdom, where previously establishments were not allowed to play loud music.

Earlier this week, British singer Liam Payne was criticised on social media after he was announced in the event’s line up.

The former One Direction singer came under mounting pressure to rethink his performance after Human Rights Foundation, a non-profit organisation, issued a letter addressed to Payne, urging him to cancel his performance and highlighting several cases of human rights abuses in the kingdom.

“Saudi Arabia is also among the worst violators of basic individual rights, and in particular the right to freedom of opinion and expression…for decades the Saudi government has harassed, arrested and sentenced dissidents violating their freedom of expression, opinion and assembly,” the letter read.

“If you move forward with this performance for a festival sponsored by the crown prince, you will be in league with the people who respond to freedom of expression and thought with murder.”

Popstar Nicki Minaj, who was set to perform at the festival, cancelled her performance earlier this month due to concerns over human rights.

The US rapper told the Associated Press in a statement that she came to the decision "after careful reflection".

"While I want nothing more than to bring my show to fans in Saudi Arabia, after better educating myself on the issues, I believe it is important for me to make clear my support for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community and freedom of expression," Minaj said.

Minaj was later praised for her decision to pull out of the festival.

Nicki Minaj pulled out of the festival

Chief Executive Officer of Human Rights Foundation Thor Halvorssen tweeted Nicki Minaj to commend her decision, calling it an inspiring and thoughtful way of rejecting the Saudi government's attempt at using her for a public relations stunt.

Korean superband BTS also announced their upcoming performance in Saudi Arabia, similarly raising concerns from people online.

Jeddah Festival

Despite calls from activists and rights groups, several artists and bands are still set to perform in the kingdom, including The Backstreet Boys, Chris Brown, Marshmello and Martin Garrix.

Jeddah Saudi Festival

Adam Coogle, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Middle East Eye that Saudi Arabia was attempting to build an entertainment industry in a bid to improve its international reputation.  

"Saudi Arabia is attempting to change the country’s image in part by developing an entertainment industry and hosting concerts by well-known artists, but no public concert can paper over the dramatic decrease of space for free expression in Saudi Arabia since Mohammad bin Salman became crown prince," said Coogle.

Efforts to “modernise” the kingdom led by MBS have been criticised, as rights groups have said that they help conceal abuses by the kingdom’s rulers.

Bin Salman has come under increasing scrutiny since the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi as well as the torture of women’s rights defenders and Saudi Arabia’s heavy involvement in the war in Yemen.

Last month, a UN report found that there was "credible evidence" that MBS was behind Khashoggi's murder.

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